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Ramsey: Lee Rodriguez belies age of 83 in table tennis before State Games

July 18, 2013 Updated: July 18, 2013 at 6:45 pm
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photo - Lee Rodriguez practices table tennis Thursday, July 18, 2013, in his Colorado Springs basement  for the Rocky Mountain State Games this weekend. At 83, Rodriguez is the oldest athlete in the games.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Lee Rodriguez practices table tennis Thursday, July 18, 2013, in his Colorado Springs basement for the Rocky Mountain State Games this weekend. At 83, Rodriguez is the oldest athlete in the games. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Lee Rodriguez is 83, born two months after The Stock Market Crash of 1929, but he moves through his life with the energy of a man born in 1979.

He takes long walks through central Colorado Springs with his vivacious wife, Dee.

He hugs and chases his eight grandchildren.

He dominates younger opponents in table tennis.

Rodriguez will compete Saturday and Sunday at City Auditorium in the Rocky Mountain State Games. He is the oldest competitor in the games, but there's nothing ancient about the way he competes at the table.

Trust me on this one. Earlier this week, I engaged in a disastrous table tennis battle with Rodriguez in his basement. He owns one of those new-fangled paddles that enable him to place space-age spin on the ball. He dominated our games.

Still, there was one moment when I thought I had him. I placed a slam to the deep corner of his backhand side, and it looked as if Rodriguez, burdened with the aching knees of a man born during the Hoover administration, had no chance to return my best shot of the afternoon.

He surprised me, but not himself, by quickly switching the paddle from his right hand to his left. He swatted an expertly placed return shot.

He won the point. And my respect. This rapid hand switch is one of Rodriguez's signature moves. He's a sneaky, resourceful senior citizen.

A few minutes later, Rodriguez talked about the game he adores as he relaxed in his living room.

"This sport is what has kept me healthy over the years," he said.

Dee, sitting a few feet away, smiled.

"He takes no medicine," she said proudly.

During the first four decades of his life, Lee thought table tennis was a silly game. He bowled. He played volleyball.

When he watched friends playing table tennis, he always had the same reaction.

"What a dumb game," he said.

This view quickly changed. He was caught in the craze of the early 1970s after the U.S. table tennis team toured China, which helped lead to a later, historic visit by President Richard Nixon.

Rodriguez got hooked. He put away his bowling ball for 35 years and devoted himself to a deceptively intricate, challenging and frustrating sport.

"It's such a technical game," he said. "People don't realize how technical it is. Until you play the game, you don't know."

This is not a mere hobby. Rodriguez was ranked 14th in the United States for players over 75 in 2007, and ranked 15th in the over 80 category in 2011. He will compete in elite over 40 and over 50 competitions this weekend. He does not seem worried about the youngsters he will battle.

He's ready.

"I tell you, this game moves you around," he said. "I play sometimes, and my opponent is covered in sweat. This game is what kept me young."

Table tennis is not the only secret to Rodriguez's youthful appearance and attitude. He's careful about what he eats, all but refusing to dine at restaurants. He prefers meals prepared by Dee, and sticks to a basic, repetitive diet. His favored foods are pinto beans, simply prepared meats and potatoes.

"I don't smoke," he said. "I don't drink. People can't believe it when I tell them my age. The secret is my healthy lifestyle."

A perky voice came from across the room.

"And your cute wife," Dee said.

A healthy, happy, ambidextrous table tennis player looked at his bride.

And nodded in agreement.

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Twitter: @davidramz

 

STATE GAMES

Competition at area sites Friday-Sunday and July 26-28; information: rockymountainstategames.org; Opening Celebration and Olympic Downtown Celebration, 5-10 p.m. July 26

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